Chinampas: What they are, how they work, and why they matter today more than ever.

One of today's most innovative forms of sustainable farming is old. Like, really, really old. Aztec Empire old: chinampas.

With all the focus we put on technology, it's easy to believe that sustainability is a new-age idea. Scientists are frantically trying to develop something to save the world from our recent mistakes — the pollution of the Industrial Revolution, spills from any number of oil companies, and the human-made climate change that scientists only began to notice in the late 1900s.

In reality, one of the most innovative farming solutions has been here all along. Sustainable farming isn't a 20th century invention. It's something the Aztecs started doing centuries ago called chinampas.


The Aztecs used stunning floating gardens — otherwise known as chinampas — to grow their crops without harming the environment.

Photo by Karl Weule/Wikimedia Commons.

Chinampas were created by piling mud and decaying plants into small stationary islands on top of which the farmers would sow maize, beans, chilies, squash, tomatoes, and greens. Farmers would also grow the colorful flowers used in a variety of their ceremonies. To stabilize the islands, sturdy reeds were bound together and used to both border each chinampa and to help anchor it to the ground.

The dredging of the mud cleared the way for canals and naturally reinvigorated the nutrients in the soil that fed their crops. The resulting system of canals and gardens created a habitat for fish and birds, which helped maintain the health of the ecosystem and also provided additional sources of food.

The chinampas didn't harm the environment — they enhanced it.

"Floating Gardens" drawing by Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr.

This wasn't just a feat of incredible gardening — chinapas took a lot of complicated work to create.

Chinampas are sustainable, but they aren't self-maintained. Farmers had to construct a series of systems and processes to keep their people and the land healthy. Drainage systems were added to avoid flooding during the rainy season.

To fertilize the gardens, they developed a waste system to collect human excrement from the cities and spread it over their crops. The result was more than just flourishing crops: The chinampas actually helped prevent waste from entering and poisoning the water supply.

The fact that Aztecs found a way to turn unworkable swampland into a flourishing garden is an accomplishment in itself. Even more impressive is the amount of organized manpower, planning, and utilization of their resources required to make their idea a reality.

A chinampa in Mexico City. Photo by Emmanuel Eslava/Wikimedia Commons.

So don't call it a comeback. Chinampas have been here for years.

They're still in place around Mexico City, where they're both a tourist attraction and a working farm maintained by the locals. Other cities and countries have picked up on the chinampa idea, too — you can find them on the Baltimore waterfront and even cleaning up New York's polluted Gowanus Canal.

Some ecological companies have even taken elements of the Aztecs' methods and used it to create new technology that resembles the ancient version of the floating gardens. The sustainability benefits still appeal to modern gardeners — especially since chinampas can grow plants, clean and conserve water, and don't require large swaths of land.

A modern iteration of the Aztecs' original chinampa method. Photo by EZGrow Garden.

The success of chinampas is a testament to the fact that sometimes the most innovative solutions don't involve looking to the future, but to the past.

The incredible efficiency of this indigenous gardening method serves as a reminder that sustainability doesn't have to be expensive or rely on the most advanced technology available to us today.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to look backward — toward the people who figured out how to do it right the first time.

Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
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Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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Researchers at the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a not-for-profit non-governmental organization dedicated to disrupting online hate and misinformation, and the group Anti-Vax Watch performed an analysis of social media posts that included false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines between February 1 and March 16, 2021. Of the disinformation content posted or shared more than 800,000 times, nearly two-thirds could be traced back to just 12 individuals. On Facebook alone, 73% of the false vaccine claims originated from those 12 people.

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Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash
True

The global eradication of smallpox in 1980 is one of international public health's greatest successes. But in 1966, seven years after the World Health Organization announced a plan to rid the world of the disease, smallpox was still widespread. The culprits? A lack of funds, personnel and vaccine supply.

Meanwhile, outbreaks across South America, Africa, and Asia continued, as the highly contagious virus continued to kill three out of every 10 people who caught it, while leaving many survivors disfigured. It took a renewed commitment of resources from wealthy nations to fulfill the promise made in 1959.

Forty-one years later, although we face a different virus, the potential for vast destruction is just as great, and the challenges of funding, personnel and supply are still with us, along with last-mile distribution. Today, while 30% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with numbers rising every day, there is an overwhelming gap between wealthy countries and the rest of the world. It's becoming evident that the impact on the countries getting left behind will eventually boomerang back to affect us all.

Photo by ismail mohamed - SoviLe on Unsplash

The international nonprofit CARE recently released a policy paper that lays out the case for U.S. investment in a worldwide vaccination campaign. Founded 75 years ago, CARE works in over 100 countries and reaches more than 90 million people around the world through multiple humanitarian aid programs. Of note is the organization's worldwide reputation for its unshakeable commitment to the dignity of people; they're known for working hand-in-hand with communities and hold themselves to a high standard of accountability.

"As we enter into our second year of living with COVID-19, it has become painfully clear that the safety of any person depends on the global community's ability to protect every person," says Michelle Nunn, CARE USA's president and CEO. "While wealthy nations have begun inoculating their populations, new devastatingly lethal variants of the virus continue to emerge in countries like India, South Africa and Brazil. If vaccinations don't effectively reach lower-income countries now, the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be catastrophic."

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